The Shield of Achilles by H. L. Havell
Mindful of her promise, Thetis, when she
left Achilles, went straightway to Olympus
and entered the dwelling of Hephæstus.
It was a wondrous structure, all of brass, which
the lame god had planned and fashioned by his own
skill and labour. She found him in his forge,
blowing up the fire with his bellows; for he was hard
at work, setting the finish to twenty brazen vessels,
for use in his house. Each vessel ran on golden
wheels, and moved to and fro of its own accord,
coming and going at the master's bidding. With
him sat Charis, his wife, watching her husband at
his toil; and when she saw Thetis enter she came
forward to greet her, and placed a chair, inlaid with
silver, for her to sit on. Then she called to
Hephæstus, who was stooping over his forge, and said:
"Leave thy work, and come and welcome this
"Welcome indeed she is, and honoured too,"
said the hospitable god, limping across the stithy
with outstretched hands. "Did she not save me
from my shrewish mother, who was ashamed of her
crippled son, and sought to put me out of the way,
when I was but a child? Then it would have gone
hard with me if Thetis had not received me into her
home, the deep cavern, round which Oceanus wraps
his watery coils, foaming and thundering
everlastingly. There I dwelt in peace for nine long years,
and many a pretty jewel I wrought for my
preservers—brooches, and bracelets and necklaces.
And none of the gods knew where I was, save only
kind Thetis and Eurynome, daughter of Oceanus.
Therefore thrice welcome, sweet lady of the sea!
I owe thee my life, and shall be rejoiced if I can
pay part of the debt. Take her, dear Charis, to
the guest-chamber, while I put away the implements
of my trade."
Thetis left the forge with her hostess, and when
they were gone Hephæstus gathered up his tools,
and turned the bellows away from the fire. The
tools he placed in a vast silver chest, and then
taking a sponge he cleansed his face and hands, his
brawny neck, and hairy chest. Then he put on a
clean tunic, and went to join Charis and her guest.
His huge heavy frame was ill supported on a pair
of thin, crooked legs; but his own inventive genius
had enabled him to supply this defect, for on either
side of him walked a wonderful creature, wrought
by himself in gold, with the form and face of a
maiden, a human voice, and human wit. Leaning
on these strange supporters, he entered the
guest-chamber, and sat down by the side of Thetis.
"What need," he asked, "has brought thee to my
poor house—an angel's visit, indeed, to me, both
rare and dear?"
Encouraged by the cordial tone of the good-natured
god, Thetis poured out afresh all the tale
of her woes, beginning from the time when, sorely
against her will, she became the bride of Peleus. He
was now an old man, broken and infirm, and she
a goddess, radiant in her immortal bloom, was still
chained to the human wreck, and Achilles, her son,
still in the prime of his splendid manhood, was a
perpetual source of trouble and grief. "Few
indeed," she went on, "and evil, are the days of his
life. First foully insulted by his sovereign, and
now broken-hearted at the loss of his dearest friend!
Help me to do what I can to comfort him in this
bitter hour; lend me thy skill, and make him a suit of
armour such as never mortal man hath worn before."
"If that be all," answered Hephæstus cheerfully,
"thy prayer is granted as soon as uttered. Arms
he shall have, which shall make him the wonder of
the world when he goes forth to battle."
Then leaving Thetis in charge of his wife he
went back to his forge, and having stripped to the
waist addressed himself to his work. Round the
furnace in the centre of the stithy were twenty pairs
of bellows, each serving a separate smelting oven.
These he now turned to the fire, and commanded
them to blow, for they were endowed with a
consciousness of their own, and obeyed the master's
will, now sending forth a tremendous blast, which
made the fire roar with fury, and the flames leap
upward to the roof, now breathing low, like some
huge monster in his softer mood. Into the smelting
ovens he cast bronze and tin, silver and gold;
and when his metal was ready he placed a ponderous
anvil on the anvil block, and took in one hand
a mighty hammer, while in the other he grasped
And first a shield he fashioned, vast and strong,
with threefold rim, and baldric of silver. The
shield was of five folds; and on it he wrought many
a pictured scene with wondrous skill.
There were imaged earth and sea, the unwearied
sun, and the moon in her waxing and her waning,
and the heavens with all their starry crown—Pleiades,
and Hyades, and Orion's might, and the Bear, whom
men likewise call the Wain, who turns on the same
spot, and watches Orion, and alone has no share in
the baths of Ocean.
And there was fashioned many a scene from
human life, peace and war, pastime and industry.
The first was a city, and along the streets a bridal
procession was passing, with blazing torches, and
the loud hymeneal song, and the whirl of dancers,
and the music of flute and harp; and the women
stood at their thresholds, admiring that gay
company. But in the market-place was heard the voice
of loud dispute; for the elders were met in their
session, to decide a quarrel concerning the
blood-price of a murdered man. The slayer brought
witnesses to prove that he had paid the whole
amount; but the plaintiff denied that he had
received a doit. Outside the circle stood the clamorous
mob, eager partisans of either side, and held in
check by the heralds with their rods of office, and
in the midst sat the elders in solemn conclave on
their seats of polished stone, rising up in turn to
give sentence. And he whose judgment was held
wisest was to receive a reward of two talents of gold.
A second city there was, hard beset by stress of
war. For about it lay two armies encamped, whose
counsels were divided: in one the leaders were for
taking the city by storm, while in the other they
would have made a treaty, by which the citizens
were to buy off the attack with half their goods.
But while the besiegers were disputing, the citizens
left their walls to be defended by the old men and
the weaker sort, and sallied out in full force to lay
an ambush for a convoy which was on its way to
the enemy's camp. So forth they marched, with
Ares and Athene at their head, distinguished by
their towering stature and golden armour. And
when they came to the chosen place of ambush, by
the riverside, where was a watering-place for flocks
and herds, they crouched down among the bushes,
leaving two scouts to warn them of the convoy's
approach. Soon they heard the lowing of cattle,
and the bleating of sheep, and the sound of the
herdsmen's pipes, as they came on, dreaming of no
harm; then forth rushed the armed troop, and cut
down the herdsmen, and began to drive off the beasts.
The cries of the herdsmen, and the bellowing of
the affrighted beasts, reached the ears of the
besiegers, as they sat in council, and seizing their
arms they mounted their horses, and hurried to the
rescue. Then began a furious struggle, in which
all the demons of war—Strife, and Confusion, and
deadly Fate—held high carnival, and drank deep of
Then followed diverse scenes of happy toil. The
first was a fair fallow land of rich tilth, where
ploughmen were driving their teams to and fro, drawing
long furrows, straight and deep, and pausing now
and then to refresh themselves with a cup of wine,
which was handed to them by a man who stood
ready at the end of the field. Dark rose the
curling furrow, as the ploughshare passed, and the sods
seemed of rich black soil, though wrought in gold;
for therein was displayed the artist's skill.
The next was a harvest of yellow corn, and a
row of busy reapers with sharp sickles in their
hands. Others stood ready to bind the sheaves,
and these again were supplied by a willing troop
of boys, who gathered up the swathe as fast as
it fell, and handed the ripe bundles to the binders.
Near at hand stood the master, rejoicing in his
wealth; and under a tree at the border of the field
the henchmen were slaughtering an ox, to make
savoury meat for him and his guests, while women
were preparing a mess of pottage for the reapers.
Likewise he fashioned a vineyard, heavy with
great clusters of grapes, and along the rows moved
a merry troop of boys and girls, with baskets in
their hands, gathering the luscious fruit; and when
their baskets were full they brought their burdens
home with dancing steps, led by a boy who played
the harp and sang the sweet dirge of summer in
his shrill, childish voice.
Then came a herd of oxen going to pasture, and
lowing as they went along the waving rushes,
along the murmuring stream. Four herdsmen
followed, and with them were nine dogs. But lo! a
noble bull, the leader of the herd, falls suddenly
in his tracks, struck down by the claws of two
ravening lions. They begin to drag him off, and
the herdsmen follow at a distance, cheering on their
dogs, which leap and bay wildly, but will not close
with those terrible robbers.
The last scene of all was a dance of youths and
maidens, the youths clad in close-fitting doublets,
and wearing hangers at their sides, and the maidens
wearing light garments of linen, and circlets of gold
on their heads. Holding one another by the wrist,
they first moved in a giddy circle, swift and true
as the wheel flies in the potter's hands, and then
they parted in two rows, and met again, weaving
and unweaving all the mazy figures of a Cretan
dance, while two tumblers whirled among them,
and a singer gave the time with his voice.
Framing this rich succession of pictures ran the
broad stream of Oceanus, rolling his waters round
the outer rim of the shield.
Corslet, and greaves, and helmet with crest of
gold, were fashioned next, and when the great
work was done, Hephæstus brought it and laid it
at the feet of Thetis. After due thanks, she took
leave of her generous friends, and then sped on
her way to the Grecian camp, bearing the costly
gift of Hephæstus to her son.